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Symposium: Transplanting International Courts–An Andean Tribunal Judge’s Perspective

by Luis Diez Canseco Nunez

[Luis Diez Canseco Nùñez served as a judge and then President of the Andean Tribunal of Justice, ending his tenure in 2017.]

Alter and Helfer’s book Transplanting International Courts: The Law and Politics of the Andean Tribunal of Justice constitutes an important contribution to the study of the international dispute settlement system. It honors me, as a former Judge and President of ATJ, that two prestigious researchers have devoted their time to evaluate our court and its work. I want to highlight my absolute agreement with their analysis and conclusions and offer sincere congratulations!

But there are things that an academic book, no matter how laudatory, cannot capture. I will use my contribution to highlight some missing elements, including some new developments that from the perspective of a judge are significant.

Being an international judge is a certainly an honor, but also a challenge. Representatives of governments often erroneously assume that our position on a case should be aligned with that of our respective countries. This misperception has its origins in two factors. Firstly, the structure of the Andean Tribunal, which includes one judge for each Member Country. Secondly, some judges have backgrounds as diplomats, senior government officials, and even connections that make them close to a government.

Before my election, several colleagues asked me why I wanted to become a Judge at the ATJ. They suggested that the appointment was for people either aspiring for an international legal career or seeking a golden retreat into retirement. Others suggested that it was not worth joining an entity that was in the course of disappearing and in perpetual crisis (for the reasons that Alter and Helfer discuss in their book, namely the disagreement among member states over the direction of economic and trade policy). Indeed, I later participated in several meetings in which government representatives spoke out loud about the need to restructure the Andean conflict resolution system, conversations in which some officials actually suggested abolishing the ATJ and instead recreating the panel system used by the WTO. Those who questioned why I would want to be an ATJ judge also noted what Alter and Helfer discuss: the ATJ is a cut in paste institution that merely replicates previous decisions, particularly with respect to intellectual property. The job would therefore, they suggested, lack creativity.

These comments were precisely the reason why I decided to advance my candidacy, and if elected, to try to make a difference. It was a sort of new challenge in my life. I wanted the ATJ to be more externally engaged, yet to also issue judgments as quick as possible. Moreover, I wanted the decisions to be more precise and friendly to those who read them, and I wanted to promote more scrutiny and awareness. Working within, first as a judge and then as President of the Tribunal, I crafted solutions for some procedural issues such as tied votes and allowing access to administrative bodies of Member Countries to request for Preliminary Rulings. A number of these changes are mentioned by Alter and Helfer, who express surprise that reforms and expansion of the caseload and jurisdiction came despite crises in the Andean Community. The answer is simple: innovative judges may be focused on the institution in which they work, rather than the larger never ending political crisis that surrounds the institution.

For judges, procedural changes are significant. I want to briefly discuss two changes that from the perspective of the judge are important in adjudication politics. Both of these receive scant attention in an analysis as comprehensive and encompassing as that of Transplanting International Courts.

Dissenting opinions

For many lawyers, dissenting opinions are common practice. But this wasn’t the case for the ATJ. By contrast, Andean judges believed that the lack of dissenting opinions or, alternatively, the lack of knowledge about judicial disagreements, helped the Tribunal send a message that was consolidated and strong.

ATJ decisions had traditionally been written by a single judge and discussed and signed by all, even though dissent existed in the form of unacknowledged votes against the ruling. This format hid the many points of dissent we would debate in deliberations, and thus I believed that the formality of unanimous rulings limited scrutiny, debate and feedback. As a prelude to creating dissenting opinions, we needed to take a number of interim actions. First, we needed to restructure the format of the decision, highlighting the matters under controversy. Second, we had to make public who was the Judge responsible for drafting the decision. Third, we had to decide to list the judges who voted in favor and if it was the case, to indicate who disagreed. Fourth, we needed to allow the disagreeing judge to publish is dissenting vote and the bases of their disagreement. Finally, we needed to allow the parties to access the dissenting decision. This sort of step-by-step detail–each of which is significant– is, quite understandably, lost in the type of analysis Alter and Helfer undertake.

During my tenure, we discussed the possibility of publishing dissenting opinions as an annex to the judgement of the majority; but the rules of the Court didn´t allowed for this. Very recently, by Agreement 09/2017 published on 29 November 2017 in the Official Gazette of the Andean Community, the ATJ agreed to issue an Information note which indicates that, once the final decision has been published, persons concerned may request access to dissenting opinions. This is still far from public dissenting opinions, as one finds in the ICJ. I provide this detail so that observers can see the many steps needed for change.

Oral Hearings

A second change that is important for judges is the decision to allow Oral Hearings for Preliminary Rulings cases. The Andean regulations expressly refer to the possibility of oral hearings in the framework of the Omission, Nullification and Noncompliance procedures; but rule of procedure is silent with respect to Preliminary Rulings, neither authorizing nor prohibiting oral hearings.

In my opinion, in cases having particular complexity, impact or novelty, an open oral phase or the possibility of affected actors to summit briefs to the ATJ, will help to ensure that the ATJ can entertain new points of view that might not have occurred to them. In this perspective, it is important to recall that the law and the circumstances surrounding particular cases are in a constant evolution. The law can´t be petrify.

Recently, by Agreement 08/2017 published in the Official Gazette of the Andean Community, the ATJ adopted a Regulation that normalizes various aspects regarding the nature of the Preliminary Rulings, which has codified a number of the internal procedural changes implemented during the last years. These changes are partly responsible for the expanded the number of Preliminary Rulings, something that Alter and Helfer observe but do not explain.

Article 9 of this new agreement refers to ‘reports written or oral.’ This small change opens the door for convening oral hearings in exceptional Preliminary Ruling cases. While this change is significant, the new language fails to incorporate the possibility for the parties in the process, who will be directly affected by the decision, to provide their points of view and be questioned by the judges. One thus sees the slow hand of reform at work!

These subtle changes, which may be imperceptible to those outside of the Tribunal, are important to the process of building the Tribunal’s reputation for sound judicial decision-making. While I understand why Alter and Helfer do not investigate these types of changes, a more judge-centric perspective might bring to light a different set of factors that shape the law and politics of the Andean Tribunal of Justice.


Symposium: Alter and Helfer’s Liberal Theory of International Courts–Interlocutors, Context, Backlash

by Mark Pollack

[Mark Pollack is Professor of Political Science and Law, Director of Global Studies, and Jean Monnet Chair at Temple University in Philadelphia.]

Reading Karen Alter and Larry Helfer’s Transplanting International Courts took me back, involuntarily, to graduate school, and more specifically to a moment of (in retrospect) misplaced outrage during my first-year International Relations Field Seminar. The professor in that seminar, Robert Keohane, was telling the assembled first-year students that, when it came time to write our dissertations, we should not select our cases for their inherent interest or normative importance. Instead, scholars should select cases for the “leverage” they provide in producing generalizable findings about international politics. As a student who had just fallen hard for the then-resurgent European Union, I insisted on the value of studying such a grand experiment, even if it was sui generis, since it affected the lives of 300 million European citizens. Real-world significance, I argued, beat analytic leverage as a criterion for case selection, any day.

Alter and Helfer’s study of the Andean Tribunal of Justice (ATJ) demonstrates clearly why I was wrong, and Keohane right, about case selection. To be sure, both Alter and Helfer made the same initial choice in their careers that I did, studying powerful European courts that issued thousands of decisions and meaningfully impacted the lives of millions of European citizens. In their new book, however, Alter and Helfer pivot to the ATJ, a rather specialized international court (IC) that serves a small community of four developing states, issues more than 90 percent of its rulings in the narrow area of intellectual property (IP) law, and whose judges have produce a jurisprudence that is, by the authors’ own characterization, restrained, formalist, and deferential to the views of the Andean Pact’s member governments (15).

And yet, Alter and Helfer, by focusing on the ATJ, do indeed gain leverage on a wide variety of important questions about international courts, including and especially the question of how legal transplants – in this case, one of the eleven regional courts modeled on the European Court of Justice (ECJ) – operate in practice. Taken together, they argue, the ECJ and ATJ represent a natural experiment, with similarly (though not identically) structured courts placed in very different political contexts, allowing the authors to assess the impact of contextual factors on their operation. Beyond the comparison with Europe, moreover, Alter and Helfer argue that, if we want to understand the workings of ICs outside the rule-of-law hothouse of Europe, we could do far worse than to study the ATJ, which has taken root in a challenging political and legal context that is characteristic of many of the ECJ’s copies around the world. The rewards of reading Alter and Helfer’s book, therefore, come not from learning about an esoteric island of IP law, but precisely from gaining leverage from the ECJ-ATJ comparison and drawing inferences about how ICs operate in challenging climates.

In Isaiah Berlin’s canonical distinction between foxes (who know many things) and hedgehogs (who know one big thing), Alter and Helfer are foxes, and their study of the ATJ yields insights into a wide variety of questions. Nevertheless, there is a theoretical core to Transplanting International Courts, which I would describe as a liberal, contextual approach to ICs. This approach locates courts in their international and especially domestic contexts, and explores how ICs interact, not only with state governments (which Alter and Helfer believe have been overemphasized in previous scholarship), but also and especially with other supranational and domestic actors. Given the wide range of topics they address, any review of their book must be selective, and I select just three themes – interlocutors, context, and backlash – as the core value-added contributions of the volume over existing scholarship, including Alter’s and Helfer’s previous work.

Interlocutors – If You Can Find Them

Perhaps the central focus of the liberal approach to international courts, which informs Helfer and Slaughter’s 1997 article on supranational adjudication, Alter’s 2001 book on the ECJ, and her 2014 book The New Terrain of International Law, is the relationships than an IC cultivates with its various supranational and subnational interlocutors, including regional secretariats, national courts, government agencies, individual litigants, and jurist advocacy networks. These “compliance partners,” it is argued, are fundamental to the success of any IC, and Transplanting International Courts continues this focus on interlocutors as the sine qua non of effective international adjudication. Strikingly, however, Alter and Helfer find that the usual-suspect interlocutors, namely national courts, were and are resistant to sending preliminary references to the ATJ, perceiving the Tribunal as a potential threat to their own position. In this context, the ATJ has fallen back on de facto partnerships with other interlocutors, including and especially national IP agencies, which the Tribunal strategically allowed to submit preliminary references. To the extent that the ATJ has succeeded in creating and sustaining an island of effective supranational IP jurisdiction, Alter and Helfer argue, that success can be attributed largely to the interlocutors who have activated and supported the Tribunal.

Context: Facilitating or Frustrating

Alter and Helfer’s liberal analysis, however, extends beyond their focus on courts’ ties to domestic interlocutors. Also present in Transplanting International Courts is a keen awareness of how differences in political and legal context can fundamentally shape the effectiveness of any IC. The importance of context is particularly salient in Chapter 8 of the book, “Nature or Nurture,” which argues that the differences between the activist, teleological jurisprudence of the ECJ and the more restrained and deferential decisions of the ATJ can be explained by the more propitious legal and political context of the EU, which “nurtured” the ECJ in a way that was at best loosely approximated for the ATJ in the issue-area of IP law. Indeed, Alter and Helfer concede in their conclusion that the success of the ATJ is only partial, and that a difficult context can frustrate even the choreographed actions of a strategic court. The “glass-half-full” account of the ATJ, they write, focuses on how the Tribunal secured a “toehold” in a narrow issue area (IP law) and with one set of interlocutors (domestic IP agencies), creating an island of effective international adjudication (264). “The glass-half-empty counterpoint,” by contrast, “is reflected in the ATJ’s inability to mobilize a jurist advocacy movement… and in the limited impacts the Tribunal has had on Andean law beyond the field of IP” (264).

Stepping back from the specifics of the ATJ case, Alter and Helfer, in a remarkable passage at the end of the book, depart from much of their earlier optimism about the generalizability of the European experience to other regions:

If the ATJ is the most successful example of an international court in a developing country context, the significant limits of its success should instill a sense of caution in those who hope that such courts will transform the legal and political landscape. The most that an international court can do, we argue, is to help states individually and collectively adhere to legal rules they have imposed upon themselves. (282)

In this context of reduced expectations, the famously formalist and deferential jurisprudence of the ATJ appears not as a failure of nerve, but as a “politically astute” effort to bring along reluctant interlocutors while avoiding triggering a backlash from national governments (273).

This claim is as debatable as it is fascinating. In their contributions to this forum, Alexandra Huneeus and James Gathii identify other regional courts operating in developing country contexts – the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the ECOWAS Court, respectively – that have engaged in activist, expansive, law-making jurisprudence, imposing human rights obligations on member states that clearly did not anticipate or welcome them. Implicit in Alter and Helfer’s endorsement of the more deferential ATJ approach, I would argue, is a view that it is preferable for an IC to proceed cautiously, securing buy-in from key interlocutors, rather than adopt a more expansive jurisprudence that boldly establishes new legal principles at the risk of both noncompliance and member-state backlash.

Backlash: Recontracting is Real

This raises a third and final point about Alter and Helfer’s book, namely their newfound appreciation of the threat of member-state backlash against ICs. In Chapter 10 of the book, Helfer concedes that he and Slaughter did not, in 1997, envision the prospect of member governments rising up to attack the courts they had created (278). For her part, Alter had written as early as 2000 about the prospect of backlash against the ECJ from national courts, but as late as 2008 she insisted upon the “irrelevance of recontracting politics” by governments against ICs (48). In Transplanting International Courts, by contrast, both authors confront the new reality of member-state backlash. The past decade, they write, has witnessed a “slew of … deliberate and strategic challenges by political leaders to the formal powers and de facto authority of the courts and the judges who penned the offending decisions” (278). Even the largely deferential ATJ, they write, has prompted several defiant acts of noncompliance, and backlashes against other international courts have been far more dramatic.

Backlash is a minor theme in Transplanting International Courts, but takes center stage in Alter and Helfer’s research with James Gathii on backlash against three African regional courts, which combines the authors’ newfound focus on backlash with their longstanding liberal focus on supranational and subnational interlocutors. Each of Alter, Gathii and Helfer’s meticulously researched case studies begins with one or more dissatisfied member states attempting to use “extra-legal” pressure to short-circuit formal institutional protections so as to remove judges from office, reduce a court’s jurisdiction, or shut down the court entirely. In the face of these attacks, however, Alter, Gathii and Helfer offer a surprisingly “glass-half-full” narrative, in which backlash efforts are at least partially “derailed” by secretariats, civil-society groups, and sub-regional parliaments who “delay or thwart extra-legal strategies, buying time and creating opportunities for court supporters to mobilize” (295). In the case of the South African Development Community Tribunal, they concede, Zimbabwe’s backlash campaign was fully successful, resulting in the indefinite suspension of the Tribunal. The authors depict the other two cases, however, as more hopeful, demonstrating how the Kenyan campaign against the East African Court of Justice (EACJ), as well as Gambia’s efforts to discipline the ECOWAS Court, were blunted to some extent by supranational and subnational supporters.

There is, however, a strong case to be made for a more pessimistic interpretation of these events. Such an account would highlight the ability of dissatisfied member states to circumvent formal protections of international judicial independence, succeeding to varying extents in intimidating, constraining, and even eliminating ICs. Even the nominally mixed cases of the EACJ and ECOWAS are chilling, since the former saw its jurisdiction reduced and its rulings made appealable to a new and conservative appellate body, while the latter has been sent a strong signal of the limits of its independence. Just as importantly, the use of such strong-arm tactics against international courts is not restricted to the developing world, as we have seen in the Trump Administration’s hostage-taking approach to the WTO Appellate Body, which takes a page from Mugabe’s court-curbing playbook.

Ultimately, as with Alter and Helfer’s analysis of the ATJ, these events can be seen from a glass-half-empty or a glass-half-full perspective. The glass-half-empty perspective suggests that international courts are more vulnerable to member-state pressure than many of us had expected, and that we must avoid complacency about the very real prospect that states will continue to intimidate international courts, reduce their jurisdiction, and suspend or eliminate them in response to unwelcome decisions. The glass-half-full approach, by contrast, focuses on the more hopeful possibility that strategic international courts may make common cause with supranational and subnational actors who can not only nurture those courts in their infancy but also defend them when times get tough. Whether these efforts will suffice to protect international courts’ independence, jurisdiction, and existence in an age of backlash, however, remains to be seen.


Symposium: On International Courts in Developing Regions

by Alexandra Huneeus

[Alexandra Huneeus is a Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School.]

Perhaps the most powerful lesson of Transplanting International Courts is to beware our own parochialism. After all, the only thing new about the Andean Court of Justice (ATJ) when Karen Alter and Laurence Helfer first noticed it was that US-based scholars had begun to take note. The ATJ was created in 1984 and has had an active docket for decades. Its lack of visibility is due, in part, to its survival strategy: Alter and Helfer show that the ATJ does not strive to shine through activist rulings; rather, it is a quiescent court that competently applies the letter of the law case by case, particularly in the realm of intellectual property. But its low visibility is surely also due to a certain scholarly myopia towards things not from Europe or the United States, things not in English, things from poorer countries. As Helfer confesses, the ATJ was an active court when he co-authored his groundbreaking article on the effectiveness of international adjudication in 1997, but neither he nor his co-author, Anne-Marie Slaughter, were aware of its existence, “let alone that the tribunal had decided any cases” (p. 261).

Transplanting International Courts rights the record, placing the ATJ in its proper place in the pantheon of international courts. Because it sits in a restive corner of Latin America, and has done so for over 30 years, the ATJ proves that international courts can survive under dramatically different conditions than those found in Western Europe. The case serves as a test of many theories about court power developed in the context of Western Europe, theories which Alter and Helfer convincingly argue must now be narrowed or recast. For example, the European Court of Justice is unique not because of its relationship to national courts, as argued by Alter in her first book, but rather, she now writes, due to the ideologically driven jurist advocacy movement that championed European integration in the ECJ’s early years (Chapter 9). It is fascinating to watch these two scholars who have played a seminal role in founding the field of international courts revise their earlier theories in light of the ATJ’s unexpected existence and their rich data documenting its success. The result is a powerful contribution to the literature on international courts.

Although Alter and Helfer celebrate the ATJ as the third most active international court in the world and the most successful transplant of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the book closes with a sober vision of the role of courts in the developing world: “The most that an international court can do, we argue, is to help states individually and collectively adhere to legal rules that they have imposed upon themselves (p. 282).” It is actually somewhat rare and very welcome to see judicial politics scholars embrace the judicial role of simply applying the law to a case. But this conclusion strikes me as too broad for two reasons.

First, there is another European-style judicial transplant in the region that has also been adjudicating cases for roughly the same thirty years, which has grown to have significant influence in at least two ATJ states (Colombia and Peru), all the while adopting a strategy and role almost diametrically opposed to those of the ATJ — the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, created by the Organization of American States in 1979 and having jurisdiction over 20 Latin American and Caribbean states.

Where the ATJ’s many cases each year are mostly “narrow, repetitive questions of IP law,” the Inter-American Court deals in a few, highly symbolic cases in which states are accused of human rights violations, and often of mass atrocities. Where the ATJ issues narrow rule-bound rulings, the Inter-American Court makes the most of its small docket by issuing expansive, innovative judgments. Where the ATJ declines to follow the European jurisprudence because it is too bold, the Inter-American Court declines to follow the European Court of Human Right’s jurisprudence because it is too timid. And where the ATJ enjoys a high judgment compliance rate, the Inter-American Court issues judgments with long lists of ambitious reparatory orders which all but ensure partial compliance at best (ordering states, for example, to amend their constitutions, reform their judicial system, or educate their police forces on CEDAW). Not surprisingly, the Inter-American Court’s high-profile strategy has costs: several states have withdrawn from the underlying treaty or otherwise tried to escape the Court’s authority. And yet the Court has survived, its judgments have real, measurable impact, and it has come to be viewed as a court of last resort on rights issues in many states.

In other words, the Inter-American Court seems to occupy a very different role than that which Alter and Helfer suggest is the only role available to courts in the developing world. It is true that the Inter-American Court at times helps states adhere to specific legal rules that they have imposed upon themselves. But the law can be indeterminate, and the Inter-American Court also has the role of giving content to, and at times providing a new understanding of, certain provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights. Put differently, the Inter-American Court provides a site in which the states and civil society can struggle over and articulate (and re-articulate) shared standards of moral achievement, understood as fundamental rights, in dialogue with national rights litigation. One might also note that the Inter-American Court had an additional role earlier in its trajectory, when its focus was responding to the atrocity crimes of the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s: to build on the work of the Inter-American Commission in accompanying the victims of state repression and bringing their claims to public light.

Some of this may be changing. As the Inter-American Court further develops its ties to constitutional courts and lawyers in the region, it is likely to become a bit more constrained and legalistic. And as Alter and Helfer show in their excellent new chapters on the ATJ’s more recent struggles, the politics of the Andean states can at times thrust the ATJ into the political limelight despite itself. But the differences between the two courts’ trajectories thus far suggest that, even within a single region of the developing world, there may be different paths to success, and different kinds of success, for international courts.

The second aspect of Alter and Helfer’s conclusion that merits further thought is its emphasis on the development/developing divide. Juxtaposing the two pairs of courts — the ECJ/ECHR on the one hand, and the ATJ/Inter-American Court on the other – it is interesting to note that the variation in style and strategy does not seem to map onto the courts’ legal subject area (commerce versus human rights), but neither does it map onto a developing/developed state divide. It would be interesting to see Alter and Helfer explain with more specificity what, exactly, the developing/developed state distinction means and why it matters. The point is not only that developing states are active users of the World Trade Organization adjudication mechanism and of the International Court of Justice. It is also that we are in a time when the features once thought to distinguish Latin American states – including inequality and populist presidencies — are spreading to the Northwest quadrant of the world, and so the developing/developed state divide must be reconsidered. Critical development studies argue that variation on the measures thought to distinguish developing from developed states can be more significant within a single state than among states. Knowledge of and adherence to the rule of law, for example, varies by subnational sectors, an insight that resonates with Alter and Helfer’s discovery of an IP “island of effective adjudication.”

Looking forward, this book is brimming with insights that merit further study by international courts scholars (including, for example, empirical study of whether the Inter-American System has ever had a jurist advocacy network (p.260)). It seems equally if not more important, however, to put Transplanting International Courts into conversation with those who study comparative politics. Alter and Helfer’s finding that “ATJ rulings helped to inculcate rule-law values in the domestic IP agencies” (p.276), and even helped curb corrupt practices, seems particularly salient in the wake of the Odebrecht scandal (which has affected Colombia, Ecuador and Peru in particular). Their theories about the construction of a stable, rule-following realm in the heart of a volatile region should be read by the broad audience of scholars and policy-makers interested in rule of law and democracy in Latin America and beyond.


Introduction to Symposium on Transplanting International Courts: The Law and Politics of the Andean Tribunal of Justice

by Karen Alter and Larry Helfer

[Karen J. Alter is a Professor of Political Science and Law at Northwestern University and a Permanent Visiting Professor at iCourtsLaurence R. Helfer is the Harry R. Chadwick, Sr. Professor of Law at Duke University, and Permanent Visiting Professor at iCourts.]

This Opinio Juris blog engages our findings about the Andean Tribunal of Justice, published in our book Transplanting International Courts: The Law and Politics of the Andean Tribunal of Justice (Oxford University Press, 2017). Our book is a deep exploration of a fairly obscure international court, which is illuminating because of the Andean Tribunal’s relative success and longevity despite the many challenges presented by the unstable political context in which it operates. We draw on the Andean experience to reflect on what we thought we knew about how international courts become effective and influential legal and political actors.

In 1979, Andean political leaders added an international court—the Andean Tribunal of Justice (ATJ or Tribunal)—to their struggling regional integration project to help improve respect for Andean legal rules. They turned for inspiration to the highly successful European Court of Justice (ECJ), copying that court’s design features and legal doctrines. Transplanting International Courts investigates the results of this decision, providing a deep, systematic study of the most active and successful of eleven regional courts modeled on the ECJ.

Our book investigates the ATJ’s evolution and impact using a wide range of empirical evidence. We coded every preliminary ruling from the Tribunal’s founding through 2014, reviewed noncompliance cases, analyzed the ATJ’s legal doctrines, interviewed more than forty stakeholders during five trips to the region, traced the professional backgrounds of Andean legal entrepreneurs, investigated legal networks, used process tracing to isolate the influence of key ATJ decisions, and compared the development of the ATJ and ECJ over a quarter century to understand how contextual factors shape judicial decision-making.

One of the book’s central findings is that the ATJ is effective by any plausible definition of the term, but primarily within the domain of intellectual property (IP) law—what we refer to as an “island of effective international adjudication.” The overwhelming majority of the ATJ preliminary rulings—more than 90%—relate to trademarks, patents, and other forms of IP. These rulings have shaped decision-making by domestic agencies, national judges, and private litigants. The Tribunal’s noncompliance judgments have also induced national governments to reverse domestic laws and policies that violate Andean IP rules.

The ATJ’s influence is more limited outside of the IP island, but when compared to other ECJ transplants, Andean judges have made a significant mark. The ATJ is the only ECJ transplant where all four types of legal procedures—preliminary ruling, noncompliance, omission, and nullification—have been utilized. By the end of 2014, the Tribunal had issued 114 preliminary rulings on regional legislation regulating tariffs, customs valuations, taxes, insurance, and agriculture; the Andean Secretariat and private litigants regularly raise noncompliance complaints concerning these and other non-IP issues; and states and private actors challenge the actions and omissions of Andean officials.

Unlike the ECJ, however, the ATJ is not an expansionist judicial lawmaker. The Tribunal lets the member states set the pace and scope of Andean integration and allows for the coexistence of national legislation and supranational authority, yet it does not shy away from condemning clear violations of Andean rules. This circumspect and formalist approach has enabled the ATJ to retain its fidelity to Andean law while building relationships with national administrative agencies, courts, and lawyers. But this approach also means that, unlike in Europe, Community law is not an engine of regional integration.

Transplanting International Courts updates and consolidates our decade-long study of the ATJ and the Andean legal system, allowing us to focus on the recent period of political turmoil in the Andes, as leftist-populist leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador entrenched their power and challenged the Andean Community’s liberal free trade policies. Two of the book’s chapters investigate how the ATJ has dealt with fraught political controversies that divide the priorities and objectives of the member countries. Chapter 6, The Judicialization of Andean Politics: Cigarettes, Alcohol and Economic Hard Times, traces state and private litigation across multiple Andean legal procedures to reveal how the ATJ navigates these contentious cases and responds to the reality of its real but limited power. Chapter 7, The Authority of the Andean Tribunal of Justice in a Time of Regional Political Crisis, explains how, despite major regional turbulence—a term used by Ernst Haas to explain where European integration tends to falter—the ATJ’s caseload doubled, its IP rule of law island remained resilient, the Tribunal expanded its legal doctrines, and Ecuador’s populist President Correa modified his protectionist trade and monetary policies in response to ATJ litigation (while also working to subsume the Andean Community within a less legalized continent-wide integration regime (UNASUR)). These two chapters offer lessons for other international judges who seek to build a rule of law within inhospitable political environments.

Our in-depth exploration of the law and politics of the Andean legal system also provides an opportunity to revisit our earlier scholarship investigating the ECJ and the European Court of Human Rights. Chapter 9 expands upon Karen Alter’s previous work demonstrating that the ECJ benefitted in underappreciated ways from the support of jurist advocacy movements—movements that are absent or poorly organized in the Andes and elsewhere in the world. The book’s conclusion revisits Toward a Theory of Effective Supranational Adjudication, the influential 1997 article by Larry Helfer and Anne-Marie Slaughter, to consider the limited influence of international judges when backlash remains an endemic concern.

The longevity of the Andean Tribunal of Justice, despite the many challenges it has faced, offers useful guidance for other international courts in developing-country contexts. Moreover, given that the Andean Community and its institutions have weathered member state withdrawals, threats of exit, major economic and political crises, and the retrenchment of foundational laws and policies, the Andean experience also offers timely and important lessons for the challenges that Europe’s older and more established supranational institutions now confront.

We have invited four eminent scholars and jurists to comment on our book and its findings.

  • Alexandra Huneeus, Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has written extensively on the influence of regional and international courts within Latin America. Reflecting on the role of the Inter-American Court of Justice, which operates in the same region as the ATJ, Huneeus reconsiders on our metrics for international court success and influence.
  • James Gathii, the Wing-Tat Lee Chair in International Law at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, is an expert on international economic law and on regional courts in Africa. Drawing on insights discussed TWAIL scholarship, Gathii also asks readers to think about the metrics for assessing international court success. Gathii brings into the conversation rulings by the East African Court of Justice, another international court operating in a developing country context. Gathii argues that scholars should not import Eurocentric assumptions, and thereby assume that mimicking European courts and achieving compliance are the measures of IC effectiveness or success.
  • Mark Pollack, Professor of Political Science and Law and Jean Monnet Chair at Temple University, is an expert on European legal and political integration. Pollack reflects on the political science project of studying international courts, and in particular our “liberal” approach to conceptualizing international court influence. Pollack extracts, yet questions, three generalizable lessons that one can make based on our examination of the ATJ.
  • Luis José Diez Canseco Núñez served as a judge on the Andean Tribunal from 2014-2017, and he features in our analysis of the role of jurist advocacy movements. He engages our work as a practitioner, discussing how the ATJ looks from his perspective.

We thank our contributors, whose prodding pushes all of us to move beyond current modes of conceptualizing and assessing the influence of international courts operating around the world. We learned a lot, and expect that opinio juris readers will as well, from the thoughtful reflections of our esteemed colleagues, who are complementary yet also quite critical of the approach and arguments we advance in this book. For us, this project was a way to move beyond our Eurocentrism. Huneeus, Gathii, Pollack and Núñez remind us that, given how Eurocentric the predominant theories are, we all have a way to go.


International Law vs. Donald Trump: A Reply

by Harold Hongju Koh

[Harold Hongju Koh is Sterling Professor of International Law at Yale Law School. This post is a response to the recent Trump Administration and International Law Symposium hosted on Opinio Juris.]

Can international law save itself from Donald Trump?

Since Election Night 2016, that question has haunted me across many issue areas. Professor Craig Martin and the Washburn Law Journal editors generously invited me to offer an initial answer in their recently published symposium issue in an article entitled “The Trump Administration and International Law.” As I prepare my book-length answer for publication this fall by Oxford University Press, I am deeply grateful to my friends who took the time to make incisive contributions both to the initial symposium—Margaret McGuinness, Clare Frances Moran, and David Sloss—and this virtual one—Laura Dickinson, Bill Dodge, Kevin Jon Heller, and Frederic Sourgens. I especially thank Craig Martin for moderating both symposia and for his astute opening and closing essays, and to the editors of Opinio Juris for hosting this important on-line discussion.

A full-fledged response to these various thoughtful comments will have to await my book. But broadly speaking, I am gratified that all five commentators see the lens of transnational legal process as a useful way to unpack how international law responded to the new Trump Administration in 2017. The commentators seem to agree that transnational actors outside the U.S. government have responded to various Trump initiatives by employing the “outside strategy” of provoking interactions—e.g., the lawsuits in the Travel Ban case–to generate legal interpretations (often by courts), that government actors have been forced to internalize, thereby promoting the “stickiness: of international law. They also acknowledge that, even in the face of intense political pressure, governmental actors have furthered that stickiness by using an “inside strategy” of bureaucratic resistance to adhere to previously embedded, internalized norms of international law. At a strategic level, the commentators seem to agree that a strategy of “international law as smart power”–connecting with like-minded countries through engagement around values, translating new norms of international behavior from extant norms of international law to address novel situations and technologies (e.g., drones, cyberconflict), and leveraging that law-based cooperation into enduring diplomatic solutions will far more likely strengthen international law in the long run than the Trump Administration’s repeated resigning from global leadership through disengagement, focus on national interests, and going it alone.

At the same time, each commentator registers a thoughtful caution against painting too rosy a picture going forward for transnational legal process. Professor Dodge wisely notes that litigation against the United States Government is always a double-edged sword. Litigation may harden the executive’s resolve to defend and continue negative behavior and can trigger normatively undesirable litigation positions, an argument that Rebecca Ingber persuasively laid out in her important explanation of how “interpretation catalysts” can entrench defensive anti-international law executive branch decisions. But Dodge’s argument does not so much cut against invoking transnational legal process during the Trump Administration, as it calls for smart litigators to be thoughtful about their litigation strategy. On some issues—for example, when the new Administration issues a thinly disguised Muslim Ban one week in—Trump’s subordinates threw down the gauntlet by publicly declaring that the President’s authority “may not be questioned.” Under such circumstances, thoughtful resistance through litigation becomes both a challenge and the best available option. Rule of law litigators have little choice but to generate interactions and interpretations in the smartest possible way: to choose the right cases and the most advantageous fora, making arguments sensitive to the range of positions the U.S. Government has taken in the past in an effort to advance better interpretations of international law. Whatever the ultimate outcome, such litigation serves an important signaling and public education function. The Travel Ban case, for example, has signaled government litigators that there are limits to the arguments they can make and reminded beleaguered public servants that the legal interpretations they were fighting for within the bureaucracy resonate with the courts and the public at large. Especially when combined with street demonstrations, injunctions remind policymakers that they cannot unilaterally change the status quo while the whole world—including courts –is watching. Perhaps most important, prudent persistent litigation reminds Muslim-American communities that they are not alone and teaches the public that resistance is not futile.

Professors Dickinson and Sourgens usefully ask how law and policy differ as tools to promote the stickiness of internalized international norms. Professor Dickinson uses the 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance on Procedures for Approving Direct Action Against Terrorist Targets Located Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities to enumerate the advantages and disadvantages of adopting certain norms as voluntary government policy, as opposed to conceding that they are legally required. She correctly notes that there “may be certain path dependencies that cause policies to be ‘sticky’ once adopted, [but] there is little doubt that Executive Branch policies usually do not bind future administrations in the same way as Executive Branch determinations about the applicability of international legal rules.” Yet elsewhere in her post, she offers what may be the best response to her own concern: that one reason not to focus overly “on the law/policy distinction [is] because … norms articulated as a policy matter impact legal rulings and over time may ‘harden’ into law. Indeed, such seepage seems to be at the core of transnational legal process.”

This is precisely what has happened, for example, with a little-noticed March 2011 Obama Administration announcement of

support for two important components of the international legal framework that covers armed conflicts: Additional Protocol II and Article 75 of Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Additional Protocol II, which contains detailed humane treatment standards and fair trial guarantees that apply in the context of non-international armed conflicts, was originally submitted to the Senate for approval by President Reagan in 1987. The Administration urges the Senate to act as soon as practicable on this Protocol, to which 165 States are a party. An extensive interagency review concluded that United States military practice is already consistent with the Protocol’s provisions. Joining the treaty would not only assist us in continuing to exercise leadership in the international community in developing the law of armed conflict, but would also allow us to reaffirm our commitment to humane treatment in, and compliance with legal standards for, the conduct of armed conflict. Article 75 of Additional Protocol I, which sets forth fundamental guarantees for persons in the hands of opposing forces in an international armed conflict, is similarly important to the international legal framework. Although the Administration continues to have significant concerns with Additional Protocol I, Article 75 is a provision of the treaty that is consistent with our current policies and practice and is one that the United States has historically supported. Our adherence to these principles is also an important safeguard against the mistreatment of captured U.S. military personnel. The U.S. Government will therefore choose out of a sense of legal obligation to treat the principles set forth in Article 75 as applicable to any individual it detains in an international armed conflict, and expects all other nations to adhere to these principles as well (emphasis added). 

While in 2011, the Obama Administration could not bring itself to say outright that these provisions were customary international law, as time has passed, these convictions have hardened from policy into law, advancing the U.S. government’s lengthy struggle to decide whether and to what extent it is bound –not just as a matter of policy, but of law–to comply with the two additional protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

One of my core claims is that it is both unrealistic and counterproductive artificially to split off legal from policy and political constraints when discussing the impact of transnational legal process on government behavior. In real life, these three kinds of constraints are usually intertwined and are often used in combination to check action destructive of legal stability. Although international lawyers often say, “let’s carefully distinguish between law and policy,” in real life, it is rarely so clear-cut. Law, policy, and politics pose interconnected constraints in foreign affairs decisionmaking. Some policy options may not be available as a matter of law. Some lawful options may not be wise as a matter of policy (what we used to call “lawful, but awful.”) Some options might be desirable as a matter of both law and policy, but when tried, just prove not to be politically available (as they famously say in Hamilton, “you don’t have the votes”).

My lecture’s detailed discussion of Trump’s difficulties in extricating the United States from the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran Nuclear Deal vividly illustrates the unexpected ways in which these legal, policy and political constraints have interacted together to create a web of guardrails obstructing Trump’s threatened disengagements. For example, in the Paris Accords, Trump is for now legally sticking to the 4-year term of withdrawal set forth in the treaty, while also facing a set of policy and political constraints that have blunted his goal of exit. This bundle of constraints has led to a broader phenomenon that my book calls “resigning without leaving:” the de facto outcome of all of Trump’s blustering has not been exit from existing international regimes, but the United States’ staying in as an announced lame duck, with predictably reduced influence. The wide-ranging counter-strategy of damage control across many issue areas has created a de facto path of least resistance: a default whereby the United States under Trump rarely leaves, but rather, stays in and underperforms within existing international regimes. While that is a suboptimal state of affairs, at least it has the virtue of being curable, at a future time when Trump and his party no longer control both the White House and both houses of Congress.

Professor Sourgens usefully points to two broader dangers of Trump. The first is that his relentless disdain for international law may outlast “stickiness,” by “ungluing” the elements of the administrative state that maintain obedience to international rules. Second, viewed in the broader light of Brexit and the global resurgence of Orwellian authoritarianism, Trump is plainly not so much a one-off as a symptom of a much broader counter-assault on the postwar Kantian global order that can flow through the same channels of transnational legal process that foster compliance: enabling a “transnational transference of lawlessness, or photonegative of …transnational legal process” My article tried to capture Sourgens’ insights in adopting the analogy of Muhammad Ali’s “rope-a-dope” as a counter-strategy to George Foreman’s offensive pummeling. In the game of “rope-a-dope,” both sides pay a fearful cost, and even while the nominal winner, Ali, may win the fight, in the process he may endure the kind of battering that weakens his fabric and leaves him unglued in the long run.

While these concerns are real and serious, as yet, I hope they are premature. The “tally so far,” chronicled in my article, suggest that transnational process is working so far, although harder times clearly lie ahead. Sourgens correctly notes that “the great ungluing precisely seeks to impeach the reflex to coordinate domestic and international legal processes.” But that is precisely why our counterstrategy should be to strengthen that connection: other American climate actors—states and localities, private companies and NGOs, the bureaucracy—should make clear to the international actors seeking to preserve the Paris accords that Donald Trump does not own the process or speak entirely for America. Norm-internalization goes all the way down. Street-level demonstrators in San Francisco or farmers in Vermont well understand the negative impact that global climate change is having on the level of their local coastline or the local temperature in the winter-time. Trump’s anti-globalist rhetoric may seek to sever the link between the domestic and the international, but in a modern age of globalization, the interactive link between domestic and global law is just as deeply intertwined as the link between local cause and global effect. The United States can no more resign from today’s global system than an individual can resign from the human race. Because transnational legal process is much bigger than Trump, he does not and cannot own it; we all do.

My good friend Kevin Heller makes two basic objections, which are part of a broader left critique of my approach. The first is that I am too praising of Obama. Like all administrations, the Obama Administration was far from perfect, and my goal has never been to whitewash its blemishes. My point is not that Obama always succeeded –and I agree with Kevin that the lack of accountability for torture was a glaring, continuing failure–but that Obama articulated a better general strategy of “international law as smart power:” when in doubt, engage-translate-leverage, rather than follow Trump’s destructive approach of “disengage-cite national interests only-and go it alone.”

Professor Heller secondly objects at length to what he calls my support for the legality of “unilateral humanitarian intervention;” when in fact I have argued that humanitarian intervention is not always unlawful under all circumstances under both domestic and international law, particularly when UN Security Council resolution has been persistently blocked by twelve Russian vetoes (the “never/never rule”). We need not recapitulate this lengthy debate, as I have already fully laid out my position here and here. Suffice it to say that I have not broadly endorsed unilateral humanitarian intervention as a matter of either law or policy. To the contrary, my claim has been that, twenty years after Kosovo, it is long past time for the United States government lawyers and legal academics to engage with their foreign counterparts—particularly in United Nations and nations like the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and Denmark– to determine whether and under what narrow circumstances limited intervention for humanitarian purposes may be lawful. After Kosovo, the international legal community went some distance to define a legal standard to govern the lawfulness of Responsibility to Protect or R2P. I simply argue that it is time to finish the job.

Because Kevin offers no alternative to the notion that humanitarian intervention is always illegal or to the status quo that I have called the “never-never rule,” he offers no suggestion as for how we should stop the continuing horrible slaughter in Syria, which is only intensifying as ISIL retreats. Moving away from his original absolutist reading, Kevin notes that “[a]lthough as a lawyer I would feel better about humanitarian intervention in Syria if it was authorised by the General Assembly, I am skeptical that such intervention would actually work.” On both scores, I feel the opposite. As recent UNGA votes on various electoral matters have shown, as a practical matter, the Chinese and the Russians have shown far more capacity to influence a General Assembly resolution with non-humanitarian based threats and financial inducements than do NATO countries that over the years have shown far more respect for the use of force provisions of the U.N. Charter.  So a reliance on the UNGA or the Uniting for Peace Resolution would make more Russian and Chinese-led “humanitarian interventions” far more likely than ones measured by the carefully defined rule that I set forth in my earlier writings on this subject.  And while Kevin questions whether “such intervention would actually work,” he does not fully address the likelihood that the threat of humanitarian intervention could “work” as a critical element finally to galvanize an enduring diplomatic solution.

As someone who lived through the Balkans, I learned long ago that a Richard Holbrooke-ian smart power exercise of diplomacy backed by force can sometimes get warring factions to the table, as it did at Dayton even to stop the most intractable conflict. To be clear: I have not advocated use of force in Syria for its own sake, or to engage in broader regime change; I have simply argued that international lawyers should not take the smart power policy option of diplomacy backed by force off the table by artificially claiming that a collective exercise of the Responsibility to Protect is always legally unavailable. It is a fiction to assert an absolutist norm against intervention as a prevailing governing norm, at a time when all the world seems to have intervened in Syria. It is even worse when sticking with that anti-interventionist legal fiction becomes a de facto pro-slaughter position as a matter of policy. In the end, my debate with the admirable Professor Heller shows once again why it is a mistake to try to think (and teach) international law analysis solely within its own bubble, entirely distinct from policy.  In the international realm, law and policy are inevitably and inextricably intertwined. Most transnational players use policy arguments to try to change international law, or make international law claims to force governments to change their policies.   Academics will miss half the picture if they constantly insist on artificially separating the two.

Finally, Craig Martin’s closing piece correctly notes the limits of transnational legal process: “interpretation and internalization will only result in compliance with international law if the interpretation itself is at least within a range of reasonable interpretations consistent with established principles of international law.” Professor Martin expresses some surprise at what he calls “the move from the descriptive to the normative;” he had always thought of transnational legal process as a descriptive theory, not a call to arms or a prescriptive counter-strategy. But in fact, the normative component has been a key part of transnational legal process theory from the beginning. My original lecture sketching the theory 22 years ago closed by saying:

“It is sometimes said that someone who, by acquiring medical training, comes to understand the human body acquires as well a moral duty not just to observe disease, but to try to cure it. In the same way, I would argue, a lawyer who acquires knowledge of the body politic acquires a duty not simply to observe transnational legal process, but to try to influence it. (emphasis in original) (207)”

Some might chide me for proposing an “elite project” of transnational lawyering in response to a populist rejection of just such elite policymaking.  To be clear, I do not mean to be offering a complete account of the forms of political response required to deal with Trump and the new authoritarian populists.  Nothing I say should be read to suggest that concerned citizens around the world should not be in the streets demonstrating or that grassroots efforts should not be trying to win back the state houses and institutions of formal government power.  Lawyers are never going to relieve us of the burdens of politics, but they certainly can—and I believe should—constantly create acts of political pressure through law that promote the rule of law through training and techniques that simply are not available to others.

If believing this, as Professor Sourgens charges, makes me “a perennial optimist,” I humbly plead guilty. But I don’t simply bet “that the stickiness of transnational legal process is stronger than the force seeking to unglue it,” as Sourgens says. Instead, I believe that our job as lawyers is to make sure that it is stronger. To be clear, as a predictive matter, I am not claiming that Trump will inevitably be checked by some kind of self-correcting synopticon of distributed checks and balances. Rather, as a normative matter, I think that committed international lawyers have to fight to preserve the imperfect world we have inherited. As Dr. King memorably put it, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But it certainly does not bend by itself. If Trump and those of his ilk are pushing hard to bend that arc in one direction, isn’t it the job of all of us who care about international law to push it even harder in the other?


Submit to the Harvard International Law Journal!

by Kevin Jon Heller

The Harvard International Law Journal has just posted a call for their 60th anniversary volume. Here is the relevant text:

The Harvard International Law Journal is now accepting article submissions for Volume 60. We seek to publish innovative, original scholarship that makes a significant contribution to the field of international law. We welcome submissions from legal scholars, practitioners, and doctoral degree candidates on topics of private or public international law and related fields, including interdisciplinary work.

For our 60th Anniversary volume, as we reflect on our past and look forward, the Journal is particularly interested in publishing articles about the frontiers of international law. Frontiers represent new horizons and new perspectives; but, they can also reveal limits, gaps, and boundaries. We intend the broad line of inquiry for this issue to include emerging issues in international law, interactions between existing bodies of international law, limits of international law, the influence of new technologies or scientific understandings on international law, and interdisciplinary perspectives on international law and governance.

I’ve been fortunate enough to publish two articles with HILJ, including one — my “What Is an International Crime? (A Revisionist History)” article — that will be in print very soon. I have nothing but good things to say about working with the journal. Not surprisingly given the caliber of the students, the journal provides excellent feedback that will make your article better. And if you’re particularly fortunate, HILJ will organise an online symposium about your article. They solicited responses to my “A Sentence-Based Theory of Complementarity” article from Carsten Stahn and Darryl Robinson. And Mia Swart, Astrid Reisinger Coracini, and Alejandro Chehtman will be responding to my new one. (I’ve also been given an opportunity to reply.) Being able to carry on a virtual conversation about your work is a rare treat.

As I said, submit to HILJ! (Yes, double entendre intended.)

This entry was posted in Law Review Partnerships.

Symposium: The Assumptions of Koh’s Transnational Legal Process as Counter-Strategy

by Craig Martin

[Craig Martin is a Professor of Law at Washburn University School of Law, and is Co-Director of the International and Comparative Law Center at Washburn Law.]

This post will bring to a close the formal part of the virtual symposium on Harold Koh’s recent article The Trump Administration and International Law. As moderator, I would like to begin by thanking all those who contributed (including a couple of announced contributors who we unfortunately lost along the way to illness and crises). I think that each of the essays has raised interesting and important questions and issues. In closing, I would like to try to explore the common themes raised in the essays, and suggest that they all relate to a potential paradox in transnational legal process, and a weakness in its utility as a counter-strategy, that Harold may want to address as he expands the article into a book.


To briefly re-cap the symposium, Harold’s article argued that actors inside and outside of the U.S. government are, and should be, leveraging the features of transnational legal process as a counterstrategy aimed at preventing the Trump Administration from disrupting international law and postwar Kantian global order. There was general agreement with Harold’s analysis and criticism of the Trump Administration, and the threats it poses for international law and its institutions. And all applauded the effort to find ways to meet those threats. But each offered insights and critiques regarding different aspects of Harold’s account of transnational legal process, and its utility as a counter-strategy against threat Trump poses.

Bill Dodge focused on the “outside” component, and specifically the use of litigation, as part of the counter-strategy grounded in transnational legal process. Bill offered the cautionary insight that the use of litigation actually triggers executive interpretations of international law that are not only excessively narrow (and, one might add, sometimes at variance with traditional understanding of the law), but are indeed deeply entrenched through the internalization process. This confirms the interaction-interpretation-internalization dynamic, but not always in ways that contribute to compliance with international law.

Freddy Sourgens similarly questioned the extent to which the “stickiness” created by transnational legal process would be sufficient to enmesh a hostile Trump Administration, particularly given that, in his view, the Trump Administration is only one symptom of a more general unraveling of institutions and norms within the international legal order.

Laura Dickinson raised questions about the manner in which Harold’s approach tends to blur, or perhaps disregard, the distinction between law and policy. She used the example of the Presidential Policy Guidelines on Procedures for Approving Direct Action Against Terrorist Targets Located Outside of the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities (PPG), to great effect in exploring how a detailed set of policy “rules” serve to bridge the gap between differing interpretations of law, but also to mask the legal dimensions of the problem. The implication here is that transnational legal process may lead to problems if such policy looks like, or even substitutes for, an interpretation and internalization of law in the transnational legal process.

Kevin Heller provided a two part tour-de-force providing a retrospective and prospective critique of Harold’s arguments. In Part I, Kevin challenged the excessively black-and-white contrast drawn between Trump and Obama on compliance with international law, highlighting a number of ways in which the Obama Administration exhibited a lack of respect for international law and human rights. In Part II, Kevin provided a detailed and persuasive critique of Harold’s argument in support of the lawfulness of the use of force for purposes of unilateral humanitarian intervention (UHI), as a third exception to the prohibition in Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter. Harold argues that UHI both is and should be lawful, while Kevin is of the view that no such exception currently exists, nor would it be wise to establish one.

The Move from the Descriptive to the Normative

It strikes me that several of the issues raised seem to point towards some common tensions or even paradoxes within the argument. What is more, some of these tensions are not only in relation to the use of transnational legal process as counter-strategy, but relate to the theory of transnational legal process itself. Indeed, it may be that as we begin thinking more deeply about the theory as counter-strategy, we may stumble upon some important questions about the theory itself.

Upon reflection, I found the move made in Harold’s article both intriguing and surprising. That is, the manner in which the article apparently transformed transnational legal process from a descriptive theory into a strategy. My understanding of Harold’s famous work on transnational legal process was that the theory sought to explain why and how international law mobilized compliance. This compliance was the consequence of a complex process that operated automatically, organically, as a natural result of transnational interactions arising from the very structure and nature of the system of international law and its component parts.

In his Washburn article, however, Harold is suddenly speaking about transnational legal process as a counter-strategy. This is no longer just an explanation of how a process operates, but a call to arms. It is an argument that actors both inside and outside of the U.S. government can and should engage in action designed to trigger and implement the mechanisms of transnational legal process, as a means of resisting apparent threats to the international legal order. It is not just that transnational legal process makes international law “sticky”, making departures from the law difficult, but that we should all be engaged in trying to make it stickier, to enmesh and exhaust the rogue regime. What is more, Harold suggests that the Obama Administration effectively and self-consciously pursued the “inside” component of this strategy, by consistently engaging the international community, translating international law rather than disregarding it, and then leveraging international law as a component of the exercise of smart power.

Yet, as Kevin details in Part 1 of his essay, the Obama Administration acted in many ways that were inconsistent with, and indeed even inimical to, international law. But while Kevin was primarily cautioning against allowing our preoccupation with Trump to entirely eclipse any concerns over the transgressions of Obama, these inconsistencies may actually take on a greater significance in light of Harold’s argument. For when Harold speaks of the Obama administration engaging in transnational legal process of interactioninterpretationinternalization, so as to support international law and deploy it as part of American soft power, his implicit premise is that the interpretations of international law at issue were valid and legitimate, in part because previous interpretations have been valid and legitimate, and have been in turn internalized. But what if, as Kevin argues, interpretations frequently were not?

Questioning the Assumptions

Bill has explained that litigation can sometimes force the internalization of a very narrow or constrained, and one might add possibly invalid, view of international law; Laura has explained that the articulation and interpretation of detailed rule-based policy can disguise the legal issues, and be internalized in the place of law; Kevin has detailed instances in which the Obama administration took positions that were inimical to international law. In short, interactions can lead to invalid interpretation, and the internalization of principles, norms, or legal positions that are inconsistent with established international law.

Consider one example that was referred to in Harold’s article, and which was also touched on by both Kevin and Laura – the targeted killing of suspected terrorists with drones in non-consenting states, away from traditional theatres of armed conflict. This one policy has been widely attacked as violating a wide range of well-established principles of jus ad bellum, international humanitarian law (IHL), and international human rights law. Illustrative of Laura’s insight, much is often made of how the PPG established limitations on acceptable collateral damage that were more stringent than limits required by the principle of proportionality in IHL. But this disregards, and distracts from, the key question of whether IHL applies at all. A large segment of the international community, including many American allies, reject the claim that the U.S. can be in a non-international armed conflict against “Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces,” wherever they happen to be, and thus deny that IHL can apply to the American targeted killing of individuals away from the theatre of armed conflict. And if IHL does not apply, many of these killings would flagrantly violate international human rights law and domestic criminal law.

Similarly, this use of force against non-state actors within non-consenting states requires justification under jus ad bellum. Harold in his article refers to the Obama Administration reliance upon both a “necessarily elongated” notion of imminence, and the “unwilling or unable” doctrine, for its justification of such use of force. But as Kevin notes, and many others have argued, this “elongation” of the concept of imminence actually strips it of any temporal component, and so guts a concept that is integral to the broader doctrine of self-defense. Other aspects of the unwilling or unable doctrine similarly distort the relationship between jus ad bellum and both IHL and the law of state responsibility, and excessively privileges the interests of powerful states over the rights of weak states. Ultimately, it lowers the threshold for the legitimate use of force in ways that could have important ramifications for inter-state conflict.

It is not possible to lay out the proof for these arguments here, but they will be familiar to most readers in any event. But this is merely to illustrate that there are powerful arguments, controversial though they may be, that the Obama policy on targeted killing with drones distorted and undermined well-established principles of jus ad bellum and IHL, in ways that may do serious harm to the stability of those legal regimes, for relatively narrow instrumental anti-terrorism purposes.

The point here is not that Obama was as bad as Trump, or that the targeted killing policy was wrong. The point is to address the extent to which the theory of transnational legal process relies on the validity and legitimacy of the interpretations in question. The Obama Administration “interpreted” and “translated” international law in specific ways to justify policies such as the targeted killing program, and those interpretations were internalized not only within various components of the U.S. government, but other governments (such as the U.K., and Australia) as well. But such interpretation and internalization will only result in compliance with international law if the interpretation itself is at least within a range of reasonable interpretations consistent with established principles of international law. If the interpretation is outside of such reasonable range, and moreover if it is a deliberate and instrumental effort to cloak or rationalize a departure from international law, then it is difficult to see how the process will result in compliance.

It is not clear to me that the there is anything inherent or internal to the process itself that helps ensure that interpretations will more often than not fall within such a reasonable range of validity. The process is explained as being “constructivist”, and is “sticky” and self-perpetuating precisely because prior valid interpretations are internalized. But that does not explain how it is self-corrective if interpretations begin to deviate from the norm. On the contrary, it seems that the validity of interpretations could depend to a significant degree upon the outlook and disposition of the actors within the administration engaged in the interpretation. Harold does suggest in his latest article that the choice of engagement over unilateralism is a feature of the theory, and this may attenuate the problem, though I am not entirely clear on how such engagement is a necessary consequence of the process. It strikes me that this issue could benefit from further explanation—specifically, the question of how transnational legal process encourages interpretations that are themselves consistent with international law.

This brings us back to Trump and the deployment of transnational legal process as counter-strategy. If transnational legal process as a theory of compliance is dependent to some degree upon the good faith motives of key actors within the system, what happens when it is confronted with something like the Trump Administration? And which is worse: a rouge administration’s utter disregard for international law, or its decision to engage in an instrumental, malicious effort to subvert and destroy it through its own process of distorted interpretations and internalizations of international law in a manner cynically designed to serve its instrumental purposes? This is reminiscent of a debate between Adrian Vermuele and David Dyzenhaus over whether black holes or gray holes are worse for the rule of law—whether a façade of legality disguising unlawful conduct may do more violence to the rule of law than outright disregard or suspension of legal principles in certain exigent circumstances.

In short, I think that in developing the article into a book, Harold could perhaps explain further the implications of the move from descriptive theory to counter-strategy, and explore more deeply the question of how transnational legal process ensures interpretations and internalizations that conform with established international law. None of this detracts from the importance of Harold’s project—to the contrary. His explanation of the threats posed by the Trump Administration, and what is at stake for the international rule of law, and indeed the global world order, is compelling. His call to arms is rousing, his optimism is encouraging, and his offer of a counter-strategy is promising. I hope that this symposium will contribute to a conversation that may continue to inform Harold’s development of what is sure to be an important book.


Symposium: Koh, Trump, Obama – and Jean Baudrillard (Part 2)

by Kevin Jon Heller

[Kevin Jon Heller is a Professor of Law at the University of Amsterdam. This is the second part of a two-part post. The first part can be found here.]

Humanitarian Intervention

The first part of this post outlined my retrospective problem with Harold’s article. My prospective problem concerns his passionate call for the legal recognition of unilateral humanitarian intervention (UHI) – intervention that is not authorised by the Security Council. Harold’s desire to legalise UHI is understandable, given the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria. (The past couple of days being a horrific reminder.) And I share his anger toward Russia, which has repeatedly used its permanent veto to prevent the international community from taking stronger action against Assad. (Though I think the US and NATO are at least partially to blame for Russia’s intransigence, given how NATO abused the authority Russia was willing to give it in Libya.) But even if we believe that UHI should be legal – which I don’t – I think Harold is wrong to insist that it is legal.

Here is what he says about the categorical prohibition of the use of force in Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter (p. 461):

This “never-never rule” exhibits the absolutist, formalist, textualist, originalist quality Americans usually associate with the late Justice Antonin Scalia. It relies on absolutist readings of text, as those texts were “originally understood,” claiming that a nation may not engage in unilateral humanitarian intervention because of prohibitive wordings of Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter and Article I of the U.S. Constitution. But on inspection, this position cannot be sustained. In both cases, this simplistic, absolutist reading cannot be squared with state practice, inter-branch practice, or the broader object and purpose of the document the reader claims to be interpreting.

To be clear, the “simplistic, absolutist reading” Harold condemns is not only consistent with the text of Art. 2(4), it is precisely the reading intended by the drafters of the UN Charter — powerful and weak states alike. Lowe and Tzanakopoulos explain:

13 The travaux préparatoires of the UN Charter, however, establish clearly that the expressions ‘territorial integrity’, ‘political independence’, and ‘in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations’ were not meant as qualifications of the scope of the prohibition in Art. 2 (4) UN Charter, but rather as reinforcements of the prohibition, aimed at assuring smaller and less powerful States that the use of force, for whatever reason, was absolutely prohibited. This was confirmed by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Corfu Channel Case, where a British argument that its actions in forcibly sweeping Albanian waters for mines did not violate the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Albania was rejected, the UK intervention being declared to be a ‘manifestation of a policy of force’ (at 35). In the Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua Case (Nicaragua v United States of America), the ICJ reaffirmed the absolute prohibition of forcible intervention, and stated that ‘the use of force could not be the appropriate method to monitor or ensure … respect’ for human rights (at para. 268)….

With respect to Harold, dismissing the remarkable clarity of the text and history of Art. 2(4) by invoking a right-wing ideologue like Justice Scalia is unfair, conjuring as it does the image of a bunch of white men articulating rules that have to be blindly followed by future generations regardless of societal and demographic change. The Charter might have been drafted by a limited number of states, but the categorical nature of the prohibition of the use of force has been affirmed by every state that has ratified the UN Charter – i.e., all of them – including the dozens of states that did not yet exist when the Charter was drafted. In that respect, there is simply no parallel between the US Constitution and the UN Charter. Far from being quaint or outdated, the Charter’s regulation of self-help reflects state will no less today than it did in 1949.

Harold’s reference to the “object and purpose” of the UN Charter also fails to justify UHI. Although promoting human rights is one of the goals mentioned in the Preamble, it is not the only goal. Others include “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”; “to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security”; and “to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest.” It is impossible, therefore, to separate promoting human rights from the prohibition of the use of force; on the contrary, the UN Charter is founded on the idea that respect for the latter is a condition of possibility for the former. Lowe & Tzanakopoulos again:

14 Most importantly, the narrow interpretation of Art. 2 (4) UN Charter is inimical to the purpose and structure of an organization intended to maintain international peace and security through the establishment of a collective security system. Oscar Schachter famously wrote that the narrow interpretation of Art. 2 (4) UN Charter requires an ‘Orwellian construction’ (at 649) of the provision’s terms. The better view is that any use of force, irrespective of its—humanitarian or otherwise laudable—motivation, is caught by the prohibition of Art. 2 (4) UN Charter and must be justified on the basis of an accepted exception.

To be sure, I agree with Harold that state practice could legalise UHI, either as a new interpretation of Art. 2(4) through subsequent practice (Art. 31(3)(b) of the VCLT) or as a supervening rule of customary international law. But there is simply no evidence that any significant number of states want to legalise UHI. Here is Harold’s argument to the contrary (pp. 459, 462):

The United Kingdom, Denmark, and Belgium have all articulated the conditions under which they believe humanitarian intervention to be lawful.

To overcome the manifest rigidity of the never-never rule, state practice has offered many prominent counterexamples of de facto humanitarian intervention: India- Bangladesh; Tanzania-Uganda; Vietnam-Cambodia (Khmer Rouge); the U.S. and the U.K. creating no-fly zones over Iraq to protect the Kurds and the Shias; and of course, NATO’s famous Kosovo episode of the late 20th century.

None of the examples Harold mentions supports the legality of UHI — where opinio juris is required, not simply the ability to describe a use of force as “de facto humanitarian intervention.” In each and every case, the invading state invoked a traditional justification for its use of force instead of UHI:

[1] India justified its invasion of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on the ground that the millions of refugees created by Pakistan’s repression of the Bengalis qualified as an armed attack for purposes of self-defence – a view overwhelmingly rejected by the General Assembly.

[2] Tanzania claimed that it was responding to an armed attack by Uganda. In fact, as Lowe and Tzanakopoulos note (para. 15), Tanzania did not even mention Uganda’s terrible human rights record in its public statements.

[3] Vietnam justified its invasion of Cambodia as self-defence against armed attack.

[4] The Coalition initially provided no justification whatsoever for creating no-fly zones over Iraq. The UK eventually invoked UHI, but no other member of the Coalition did likewise. Indeed, the US later argued – unpersuasively, to be sure – that the no-fly zones were permissible acts of self-defence.

[5] Only the three states Harold mentions – the UK, Belgium, and Denmark – invoked UHI to justify NATO’s bombing of the Serbs. No other NATO state did, and Belgium argued that the bombing campaign should not be seen as a precedent for the legality of UHI in other situations. (A claim Germany made, as well, even though it did not invoke UHI.) By contrast, as Lowe and Tzanakopoulos note (para. 33), “[t]he Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), numbering well over half of the Member States of the UN, unequivocally condemned the use of force against the (then) FRY, as did many other States, some of which are nuclear powers.”

The UHI ledger, in short, can hardly be said to support the legality of UHI. Only three states have ever invoked UHI as a matter of law – and one of those three refuses to endorse it as a general rule. Three states do not a new interpretation or supervening custom make – especially when more than 130 states, the entire Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), have specifically and repeatedly condemned UHI as unlawful.

It is not an accident, of course, that NAM states have led the opposition to UHI. Their opposition may be overinclusive, in the sense that it is at least possible to imagine powerful states in the Global North using force against weaker states in the Global South for genuinely humanitarian purposes. But if the Global South is (too) skeptical of UHI, the US and other powerful states have only themselves to blame, given their long and ignoble history of using force illegally – and dressing up those illegal uses of force in the language of humanitarian concern. (See, e.g., the invasion of Iraq.) Just consider the US’s personal list of military and CIA interventions since WW II, courtesy of William Blum: Iran (1953); Guatemala (1954); Thailand (1957); Laos (1958-60); the Congo (1960); Turkey (1960, 1971 & 1980); Ecuador (1961 & 1963); South Vietnam (1963); Brazil (1964); the Dominican Republic (1963); Argentina (1963); Honduras (1963 & 2009); Iraq (1963 & 2003); Bolivia (1964, 1971 & 1980); Indonesia (1965); Ghana (1966); Greece (1967); Panama (1968 & 1989); Cambodia (1970); Chile (1973); Bangladesh (1975); Pakistan (1977); Grenada (1983); Mauritania (1984); Guinea (1984); Burkina Faso (1987); Paraguay (1989); Haiti (1991 & 2004); Russia (1993); Uganda (1996); and Libya (2011). And we wonder why the Global South doesn’t trust the US (or the UK, or France, or…) to get UHI right?

Does this mean that, to paraphrase Cicero, silent enim leges inter tyrannide? Not necessarily. As Harold’s discussion of the P5 (p. 461) itself indicates, the obstacle to addressing the situation in Syria is not Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter, but the existence of the permanent veto. So instead of embracing UHI, it would be far better to argue — as John Heieck has — that the P5 has a legal duty not to veto a Security Council resolution aimed at preventing jus cogens violations such as genocide and crimes against humanity.

To be sure, good positivist that I am, I am not completely convinced that international law imposes a “no veto” duty on the P5. (I’ll wait for John’s forthcoming book to convince me otherwise.) The stronger legal “solution,” therefore, is probably the one Lowe and Tzanakopoulos discuss — relying on the 1950 Uniting For Peace Resolution to argue that the General Assembly can authorise humanitarian intervention when, as in Syria, the P5 is hopelessly divided:

36 The lack of Security Council authorization cannot be the final word on the issue of legality of an intervention on humanitarian grounds, even if no right of unilateral humanitarian intervention has emerged by way of customary international law. As Certain Expenses of the United Nations (Advisory Opinion) and the Israeli Wall Advisory Opinion (Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory) have confirmed, the Council has primary but not exclusive responsibility for the maintenance or restoration of international peace and security, which may be threatened by humanitarian catastrophes. The UN General Assembly has devised a procedure through which to respond to threats to the peace when the Security Council cannot act because of the use of the veto. This is the procedure established under the Uniting for Peace Resolution (1950). In the event that the Security Council cannot act, States arguing in favour of humanitarian intervention may take the issue to the General Assembly, as in fact they should before even considering unilateral action. Many States have expressed their preference for some form of UN response to a humanitarian crisis as opposed to allowing unilateral action.

37 The position of NATO that it needs to ‘stand ready to act should the UN Security Council be prevented from discharging its purpose of maintaining international peace and security’ (North Atlantic Assembly Resolution 283 para. 15 (d)) is, accordingly, questionable without further qualification. One major reservation relates to whether and when the Security Council is indeed ‘prevented from discharging’ its duties: a decision of the Security Council not to act cannot, without more, be qualified as the Council being ‘unable’ to act; nor can the fact that a resolution in support of action fails to command the necessary majority in a vote within the Council. Even to establish the premise, further evidence is needed that the Security Council cannot act because of the recalcitrant stance of a permanent member, and not merely because there is no agreement as to the use of force in a particular instance. Indeed, the non-authorization of the use of force may be a clear instance of the Council actually discharging its primary responsibility, rather than of it being prevented from doing so. And even if it is considered that the Council is being prevented from acting, UN law allows for an institutional solution: recourse may be had to the General Assembly in an attempt to garner support by two-thirds of its members under the Uniting for Peace procedure. Indeed the language of the NATO resolution itself comes close to that of the Uniting for Peace resolution.

If 2/3 of the General Assembly wants to authorise force to promote human rights — a threshold that would require a number of states in the Global South to support intervention — what possible basis is there, other than a “simplistic, absolutist” reading of the UN Charter and naked power politics, for the P5 to prevent the UN from acting?

To be clear, this is a legal argument, not a practical one. Although as a lawyer I would feel better about humanitarian intervention in Syria if it was authorised by the General Assembly, I am skeptical that such intervention would actually work. (Hence the scare quotes around “solution” above.) There is evident reason to question the value of external military force in Syria, for reasons explored here and here and here and here and here and here. Those analyses focus on UHI, not humanitarian intervention authorised by the General Assembly. But similar considerations apply as long as Russia remains devoted to Assad’s murderous regime.

Indeed, Harold himself clearly recognizes that no durable solution is possible in Syria without Russia’s support (p. 460):

To solve Syria, the United States must join other nations— including Russia—in building a sustainable peace process, organized around lawful conduct and a durable legal arrangement, and leverage that lawful core into a broader policy solution that contains and manages the sprawling crisis.

I completely agree — which is why I find Harold’s full-throated defense of UHI so puzzling. If Russia ever gets on board with a “sustainable peace process,” the Security Council could authorize humanitarian intervention in Syria, making UHI unnecessary. And if Russia continues to obstruct peace in Syria, as it has to date, engaging in UHI (or any kind of HI) would be exceptionally likely to end badly – if not in WW III. Either way, there would be no pragmatic rationale for UHI.


I share Harold’s anger toward the lawlessness of the Trump administration, and his analysis of all the ways in which Trump has further destabilized an already chaotic world is essential reading for anyone interested in American politics, international law, and the intersection between the two. But we cannot allow the horrors of the Trump administration to blind us to the many failings of its predecessor. Like all presidents, Obama was only selectively committed to the values he espoused; democracy and human rights mattered to him in a way they will never matter to Trump, but those values all too often took a backseat to more quotidian US interests such as “national security” and access to markets and resources. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

As for Syria, UHI it is not the answer, no matter how understandable our desire may be to do something — anything — to alleviate the human suffering there. I don’t know precisely what the solution is; if I did, I would be a politician or a diplomat, not a pointy-headed law professor. But UHI is illegal, as it should be. And it would almost certainly only make the situation in Syria worse. Military force for ostensibly humanitarian purposes is exceptionally likely to fail even when blessed by the Security Council, as Libya tragically demonstrates. Such force without international support, and against the wishes of Russia, is a recipe for disaster.


Symposium: Koh, Trump, Obama – and Jean Baudrillard (Part 1)

by Kevin Jon Heller

[Kevin Jon Heller is a Professor of Law at the University of Amsterdam. This is the first part of a two-part post. The second part is found here.]


It is an honour to be invited to respond to the article version of Harold Koh’s recent Foulston Siefkin Lecture at Washburn Law School, “The Trump Administration and International Law.” I am a great admirer of Harold’s work and an even bigger fan of Harold himself, whom I am proud to call a friend and who has been incredibly supportive of me for a number of years, even though I was never his student.

There are many international-law issues Harold and I disagree passionately about. The Trump administration’s disdain for international law is not one of them. Harold’s wide-ranging analysis of how Trump has made both the US and the world a more dangerous place is spot-on, and I can only hope that the quiet resistance to Trump’s policies within the American government is as strong as Harold believes it to be. The wide circulation of his elegant article should certainly help.

The point of this symposium, however, is not (simply) to sing Harold’s praises. Although I agree completely with his critique of the Trump administration, I think there are two blind spots in the article’s analysis that are worth discussing. The first is retrospective, concerning the supposedly stark contrast between the Obama and Trump administrations concerning respect for international law and human rights. The second is prospective, on whether unilateral humanitarian intervention is or should be legal.

Obama vs. Trump

It is difficult to witness the daily international horrors wrought by the Trump administration and not feel more than a twinge of longing for its predecessor. But as I read Harold’s article, I could not help but think of what Jean Baudrillard, the great French cultural theorist, said about the role Disneyland plays in American culture:

The Disneyland imaginary is neither true nor false: it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real. Whence the debility, the infantile degeneration of this imaginary. It is meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the “real” world, and to conceal the fact that real childishness is everywhere, particularly among those adults who go there to act the child in order to foster illusions of their real childishness.

The Trump administration, I would suggest, functions as a similar kind of “deterrence machine.” Its almost comical awfulness retroactively burnishes and legitimates the records of the administrations that preceded it, no matter how problematic those records might be in their own right. To see the power of this effect, we need only consider the rapid rehabilitation of George W. Bush since Trump became the nominee, with a baffling 61% of Americans now viewing him favourably, compared to 33% at the time he left office. Even more distressing, the surge in Bush’s popularity has largely been driven by Democrats, who seem to have forgotten, in the face of Trump’s bumbling and absurdly bellicose foreign policy, that Bush is the president who brought us systematic torture and the invasion of Iraq.

The Trump deterrence machine hums along even more smoothly, though, with regard to the Obama administration. Who among us, even my fellow denizens of the far left, wouldn’t be delighted to have a third term of Obama now that we have a President who couldn’t find Ukraine on a map if you pointed him toward the correct continent? Should we lefty international-law types really be spending our limited energies reminding people of Obama’s failures, when we are currently being led by a pathological liar with the emotional maturity and impulse control of a third-grader – someone who would happily start WW III if he thought it would allow him to turn Mar-a-Lago into a survivalist camp for billionaires?

The answer, of course, is “yes.” I unequivocally reject the hard left argument that Obama was just as bad as Trump on foreign policy. But I also think it is important to resist Harold’s admittedly understandable nostalgic longing for the Obama administration, a supposedly halcyon time when international law and respect for human rights mattered. Consider this statement (p. 417):

The inside strategy, which I applied as a government official, I called “Engage–Translate–Leverage,” or simply, using “International Law as Smart Power.” In hindsight, call this “the Obama–Clinton doctrine.” President Barack Obama tried to apply this foreign policy philosophy throughout his presidency. Upon taking office in 2009, President Obama said that “A new era of engagement has begun,” emphasizing that “living our values doesn’t make us weaker. It makes us safer, and it makes us stronger.” That approach was particularly urged upon him by his first Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who argued: “We must use what has been called smart power, the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural” to achieve better policy outcomes. Had she been elected President, Secretary Clinton undoubtedly would have continued that approach.

I have no doubt that Harold worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that the Obama administration exercised what he calls “smart power.” As an outsider, though, I still find his description of the Obama administration often unrecognizable. I don’t have time to dwell on all the ways in which the Obama administration proved itself anything but a paragon of respect for international law and human rights, but a few examples are worth mentioning – in no particular order:

[1] Sold more than $100bn in weapons to Saudi Arabia – including fighter jets, attack helicopters, warships, tanks, bombs, and air-to-ground missiles – even after there was no longer any doubt the Saudis were using them to commit unspeakable war crimes in Yemen.

[2] Preached the importance of democracy and human rights in Iran and Syria, while remaining silent about viciously repressive regimes in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and supporting dictators like Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia until it was clear neither would remain in power. (A particularly important point to make, given that Harold rightly condemns (p. 431) the Trump administration’s “blatant, disturbing softness on human rights in the Middle East, particularly with respect to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Turkey”).

[3] Used the Security Council resolution authorizing civilian protection in Libya as a pretext for regime change – and then stood idly by as Libya descended into chaos.

[4] Advocated, in the context of “self-defence” against the shadowy Khorasan Group, a view of imminence that denudes the requirement of all meaning. Recall what Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said about whether the US actually responded to an armed attack by the group: “I don’t know that we can pin that down to a day or month or week or six months…. We can have this debate about whether it was valid to hit them or not, or whether it was too soon or too late… We hit them. And I don’t think we need to throw up a dossier here to prove that these are bad dudes.”

[5] Claimed that Obama was free to violate both conventional and customary international law when authorizing covert actions.

The most problematic aspect of Harold’s argument, however, concerns what he says about torture (p. 431):

Perhaps the most visible proposed human rights rollback was candidate Trump’s statement that “[if I am elected, w]e’ll use waterboarding and a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Shortly after the election, the press leaked a draft national security executive order that called for reinstating the discredited program of interrogation of high-value alien terrorists, to be operated outside the United States, presumably at revived “black sites”—former offshore detention facilities operated by the C.I.A. But campaign statements and draft executive orders are not law. Congress has repeatedly forbidden torture by treaty and statute.

Harold is absolutely right to be appalled by Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of torture. But why shouldn’t Trump embrace it? Despite high-ranking government officials openly confessing to national and international crimes, the Obama administration did nothing – literally nothing – to hold anyone accountable for the systematic torture regime that Bush created. On the contrary, Obama promptly immunized the torturers, justifying impunity with what has to be one of the most profoundly Orwellian excuses in American political history – that he was “looking forwards, not backwards.” Had Obama been willing to look backwards – what we naive types call “criminal prosecution” – Trump might actually see torture as a crime, instead of as merely one policy choice among others.

In short, Harold’s critique of the Trump administration’s approach to international law is both accurate and devastating. But although his hands may be clean, the hands of the administration he worked for are not. Like its predecessors, the Obama administration was more than willing to ignore international law when it proved too limiting and human rights when they proved too inconvenient.

[The second part of Kevin’s post is found here.]


Symposium: The Trump Administration and International Law–Policy in the Shadow of International Law

by Laura Dickinson

[Laura Dickinson is the Oswald Symister Colclough Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School.]

In International Law in the Trump Administration, Harold Hongju Koh has articulated a bold vision of the role that international law can play (and to some extent is playing) during the current administration. Unlike some critics, he does not argue that the administration is inevitably destined to completely abandon or ignore all international law frameworks, although he does express serious concerns that Trump policies may seek to undermine or dismantle important international institutions such as NATO. Instead, Koh believes that international law continues to have teeth; he argues that it is a true constraining force, a “guardrail,” that reins in this or any administration.

Koh’s belief in international law’s constraining power derives from his longstanding theory of how international law actually functions and how it derives its force. Instead of a formalist vision of international law made only by states, interpreted largely through Executive Branch pronouncements, and implemented only occasionally in courts, Koh focuses on what he calls “transnational legal process.” In Koh’s view, this process is interactive and multi-dimensional, encompassing a diverse range of actors, from other governments contesting U.S. legal views, to U.S. courts interpreting those views, to foreign, regional, and international courts outside the United States issuing relevant decisions, to inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations advocating or expressing views of the law. For Koh, international law’s constraining power inheres in the norms that inevitably get articulated and inculcated during this complex process.

Koh’s theory of transnational legal process has not only been a path-breaking theoretical vision of how international law works. It also provides a pragmatic approach to international lawyering. One of the strengths of this piece is that in it Koh maps out a broad range of specific international law issues and projects for actors within this transnational process to tackle in the coming years, from immigration to the use of force, from climate change to cybersecurity.

There is, of course, much that could be said about Koh’s wide-ranging article. Here, I would like to focus on one issue that is implicit in his approach, but which remains largely unexplored: the distinction between legal rules and policy choices, as well as the relationship between the two. The various examples that Koh provides of transnational legal process, both in his previous writings and in this proposed plan of action, tend to slide back and forth between law and policy. For example, some of the instances of legal process that he cites in this new article are more frequently understood as policy choices rather than as legal constraints, in particular many policies that were adopted by the Obama administration.

It may be that Koh doesn’t focus on the law/policy distinction because he thinks that norms articulated as a policy matter impact legal rulings and over time may “harden” into law. Indeed, such seepage seems to be at the core of transnational legal process. And it is undoubtedly true that such seepage is an important part of the constraining power of international legal norms. Yet, that does not mean that the formal distinction between law and policy should be ignored altogether. Indeed, having just spent a year serving as Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Defense, half of which was at the end of the Obama administration and half of which was in the new Trump administration, I have a greater appreciation for the way in which government lawyers think about the law/policy boundary and the effect that the distinction may have.

During the Obama administration, many issues that could be described as conflicts over interpretation of international law got resolved not through definitive judgments about the content of international law, but through the implementation of Executive Branch policies. One prominent instance of this, in my view, is the 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance on Procedures for Approving Direct Action Against Terrorist Targets Located Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities (PPG), which Koh suggests is an example of a constraint within his framework of transnational legal process.

As a matter of domestic law, a Presidential Policy Guidance has a legal dimension. But for the purposes of international law, the 2013 PPG did not purport to establish legal rules. Instead, it imposed, via policy, a set of limitations on the use of force by the United States over and above all existing limitations under the law of armed conflict (LOAC), also known as international humanitarian law (IHL).

In particular, the PPG permitted U.S governmental personnel to use force in areas outside zones deemed areas of active hostilities only when such force was being used: (1) against a target that posed a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons,” (2) when there was “near certainty” that the target was present, (3) when there was “near certainty that noncombatants … [would] not be injured or killed,” (4) when “capture ….[was] not feasible at the time of the operation,” (5) when the “relevant authorities in the country where the action was contemplated” could not or would not “effectively address the threat,” and (6) when “no other reasonable alternatives” existed. The PPG also imposed a variety of procedural requirements regarding the nomination of targets and their approval, including inter-agency coordination, review by senior administration officials, and evaluation by lawyers.

As a policy, the PPG addressed, but significantly did not resolve, an underlying conflict over the appropriate legal paradigm applicable to the use of force in these geographic areas. If the United States is in a global armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces, then LOAC/IHL would apply to the use of force anywhere in the world against these entities. But if this armed conflict is not global, then the usually more restrictive rules regarding the use of force governed by international human rights law (IHRL) would generally apply outside the areas of armed conflict. Various actors in the international system, including states and non-governmental organizations, disagree about this issue and have taken differing approaches to the scope of this armed conflict (or conflicts). By adopting the PPG, it could be said that the Obama administration bridged an interpretive legal dispute with a policy, because many of the elements of the PPG resemble human rights norms regarding the use of force. Currently, it is unclear to what extent the Trump administration is following that policy, though reports have indicated that it has developed a new policy that retains some, but not all, of the elements of the PPG.

I do not here want to say that the policy approach to the 2013 PPG was necessarily good or bad in that particular instance. But I would like to suggest that adopting a voluntary policy, rather than an interpretation of what is legally required in such circumstances does have important consequences and has distinct advantages and disadvantages. (And of course, whether one sees an advantage or disadvantage in a particular case, may depend in part on one’s perspective on the specific policy).

On the plus side:

  1. 1. Policy is flexible. In this sense it reflects a kind of pragmatism. Policies can be fine-tuned and calibrated to specific circumstances. Thus, the PPG might be said to implement standards similar to those of human rights law, but the state is not bound under this body of law, and the standards do not have to match exactly. This flexibility gives the state room to maneuver as appropriate in a variety of circumstances.

  2. 2. Policy may serve to address differences of legal interpretation within a government. To the extent that there is a dispute over the applicable legal framework among different entities even within the Executive Branch, adopting rules as a matter of policy rather than as a legal requirement may help to smooth over those differences. It may therefore be easier to achieve consensus on policy rather than to try to resolve serious disputes about the applicable legal requirements.

  3. 3. Policy can also bridge gaps in legal interpretation among states. Adopting rules as a policy matter can present certain inter-operability benefits among allies who may have different approaches to the law. For example, one could make the case that the US adoption of the PPG helped relations with our European allies, many of whom have a narrower view than the United States regarding the scope of the armed conflict against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces. By adopting an approach closer to that of our allies as a matter of policy, the Obama administration could ease tensions that might otherwise accompany joint operations with those allies. And significantly, such tensions could be eased without needing to make a wholesale change to U.S. legal interpretations of the scope of IHL/LOAC.

Nevertheless, despite these advantages, it is important to recognize that there are also potentially certain disadvantages to the adoption of rules as a matter of policy rather than law:

  1. 1. Policy may be too flexible. Although the flexibility of policy can be an advantage, it can also be a disadvantage. For example, a voluntarily policy exerts less constraining power on a state. Although there may be certain path dependencies that cause policies to be “sticky” once adopted, there is little doubt that Executive Branch policies usually do not bind future administrations in the same way as Executive Branch determinations about the applicability of international legal rules.

  2. 2. Policy can mask (or ignore) the legal dimensions of a problem. Even when a policy could be said to help smooth over differences regarding legal interpretations, a policy does not necessarily make explicit the degree to which the policy being adopted is informed by perceived legal requirements. Certainly the 2013 PPG does not do so. As a result, the refusal to make explicit the perceived law in the area might slow the development of the law by relieving pressure on the interpretive conflict.

Beyond these general advantages and disadvantages, there are also some specific consequences that arise when a policy can be said to be “legalistic.” What do I mean by a “legalistic” policy? When a policy articulates very specific rules, standards, and procedures, as the PPG does, it could I think be fairly called “legalistic.” One consequence of implementing this type of policy is that it may require government lawyers to interpret it, even if those lawyers are not the ultimate decision-makers. Yet, legal interpretation of a policy may be complicated because it is unclear whether the policy should be interpreted in light of international law doctrine or not. In addition, sometimes the adoption of a “legalistic” policy can blur the boundaries between law and policy itself. For example, even if a government implements a policy rather than articulating a legal obligation, other actors in the system – other states, non-governmental organizations – might subsequently argue that the policy is evidence of customary international law, especially if the government is not entirely clear about the policy’s status. If that occurs, it might mitigate some of the advantages of policy. Indeed, if governments become worried that they might unwittingly be creating customary international law, they might begin to resist crafting policies that are more protective than minimum legal standards.

All of this is just to say that, as one thinks about how transnational legal process may operate, it is important to consider the differing ways in which policy decisions on the one hand, and legal decisions, on the other, may work. It may matter quite a bit the kind of “hook” that an actor in a “transnational legal process” may be using. And we should at least be aware of the differences and implications of both.


Symposium: Law and “Stickiness” in the Times of the Great Unglued

by Frederic Sourgens

[Frédéric G. Sourgens is a Professor of Law at Washburn University School of Law.]

The key virtue of transnational legal process is what Dean Harold Koh calls its “stickiness.” (pp. 416, 437) Transnational legal process is rooted in the deep authority structures underpinning world community: we, as members in world society, have internalized global norm commitments as our own and reflexively order our own lives accordingly. (p. 256) Once set in motion, compliance with transnational legal process is simply a matter of path dependence. In ordinary times, this makes it extraordinarily difficult to escape transnational legal process. By way of example, it would be strange to think of a Republican Secretary of State standing up for the Paris Agreement and perhaps even stranger to suppose that this Secretary of State was the former CEO of Exxon. And yet, Secretary Tillerson reportedly was an internal champion for the treaty.

The problem is: these are far from ordinary times. The Trump administration has been described as “unglued.” Perhaps it would be more adroitly described as an agent of a great “ungluing” of the fabric of global life. The administration is setting out to unglue the administrative state. It is poised to dismantle the vestiges of stickiness within the administrative state by failing to fill political appointments by the hundreds and driving civil servants from State Department and the EPA in record numbers. If stickiness depends upon the internalization in due course of transnational legal expectations in the administrative state – simply deny the administrative state the ready means of norm internalization in the first place.

More worryingly still, the Trump administration is a symptom rather than a cause of a great ungluing of existing world order(s). To complain that the world would come together to solve its problems but for the current occupant of the White House would be to suffer from willful blindness. The ungluing of which President Trump is such a potent symbol is a global phenomenon. What is more, it continues to spread and follows the logic of its own process: a transnational transference of lawlessness, or photonegative of Dean Koh’s transnational legal process. This counter-process is fueled by deeply felt, if not necessarily richly deserved, dissatisfaction with our globalized world order. It is therefore fair to surmise that it is not the “Will of Trump” that is set upon ungluing our world. Hell, it’s others. Hell, it’s us.

Where does this leave “stickiness?” Dean Koh is a perennial optimist. He bets – hopefully correctly – that the stickiness of transnational legal process is stronger than the force seeking to unglue it. If this proves so, the Trump administration and others like it would simply tire themselves out. What Dean Koh calls the “rope-a-dope” of a daily grind against the resistance of settled expectations in world society will eventually bring about norm compliance by the Trump administration just like it does for every other administration that campaigned on radical change. (p. 415)

Dean Koh provides a blueprint for how transnational legal process can constrain the Trump administration. Thus, he notes that “[t]hose opposing President Trump’s policy initiatives on legal grounds can use the various fora available to them to resist those initiatives, forcing Trump to punch himself out by expending energy and capital on initiatives that that do not advance his or his party’s chance at reelection” (p. 421). Dean Koh provides examples of how the “transnational legal process kicked in” by “swift and furious legal challenge[s].” (p. 425). The examples Dean Koh provides rest upon domestic legal actions such as immigration law in the context of the travel/ Muslim ban (p. 428) and environmental law in the context of the Paris Agreement (pp. 438-440). He cites the involvement of civil society actors around the world in support of these lawsuits as having an effect upon the Trump administration consistent with the demands of transnational legal process and stickiness.

Dean Koh is implicitly relying upon a connection between transnational legal process and domestic litigation. Problematically, in the face of current ungluing efforts, he does not theorize why this link should exist. As the pointed disagreement over the use of foreign legal materials in constitutional argument at U.S. Supreme Court showcased just too vividly, the great ungluing precisely seeks to impeach the reflex to coordinate domestic and transnational legal processes. The Trump administration and others dissatisfied with the current state of globalization are precisely leery of the hidden (if not invisible) hand of transnational processes guiding domestic judicial and administrative decision-making. It is therefore inadvisable to double down on implicit compliance. It is time to bring transnational legal process out of the closet and make its function explicit and express.

In the first instance, it is important to provide a further appraisal of stickiness on the international level. Take the Paris Agreement. As Dean Koh points out, the Paris Agreement did not on its face make greenhouse gas emission reduction pledges binding as a matter of the agreement itself. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that Dean Koh treats the Paris Agreement as one of the key examples of the transnational legal process at work in constraining the U.S. from changing course on climate change efforts during the Trump administration. (pp. 438-440). How did the Paris process create international legal commitments? While doctrinally tricky, this needle can be threaded and thus provide a further backstop showing why compliance is consistent with the transnational legal process not just a matter of prudential choice, but – fittingly given the name of this blog – grounded in a sense of legal obligation.

An international law answer is not enough however to satisfy the domestic side of our stickiness puzzle. To address the critics decrying the “Class of Davos,” transnational legal process in the times of Trump must answer why the international commitments incurred by the Obama administration continue to commit a successor administration. Only such an answer will give cover to career civil servants who intuitively follow the move towards compliance indicated by transnational legal process. Only this answer will answer the accusation of “deep state” with “rule of law.” What then is the role of the international commitment undertaking at Paris in barring efforts by the Trump administration to repeal and replace rules like the Clean Power Plan upon which the U.S. Paris commitment centrally relied? (p. 4). Again, the needle is tricky to thread. But not threading the needle is to give ammunition to those wishing to unglue our current world order and allows them to accuse proponents of the transnational legal process of corrupting American primacy.

Answering both questions is not a fool’s errand. Transnational legal process can provide answers in the context of the Paris Agreement. Hopefully it will push transnational legal process to provide a further layer of explanation for transnational legality. It allows us to ask not just why states comply with international law. It permits us to push further to understand how the process of complying (stickiness) is itself grounded in law. We would thus be one step further along in uncovering the central forces driving a lawfully constituted world society.

As it stands, Dean Koh’s The Trump Administration and International Law is a powerful call to action. It is an important confirmation of the virtue and value of transnational legal process. Its virtue and value is ultimately that we do not live in the President’s world, but in ours so long as we remain connected – sticky – and hold our world together. As Dean Koh notes by reference to one of the great fighters, Muhammad Ali, it is our choice to stand up for the fundamental principles inherent in the rule of law – stability, reciprocal engagement, and growth – and to be relentless in our resolve to take whatever blows an opponent might choose to inflict. But it is important to do more than stand up for these principles; one must speak up for them with an eloquence to rival one’s tenacity so that years later, it is the spirit of Muhammad Ali rather than the spirit of the U.S. boxing commissions which we all celebrate and remember. Stickiness must not only be just and lawful. It must be seen to be just and lawful.


Symposium: Advancing International Law Under the Trump Administration–Some Cautionary Thoughts About Litigation

by William S. Dodge

[William S. Dodge is Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law at the UC Davis School of Law. From 2011 to 2012, he served as Counselor on International Law to the Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State.]

Among Harold Koh’s many academic achievements, perhaps his most influential has been to articulate a theory of transnational legal process that explains why nations obey international law. According to this theory, public and private transnational actors generate interactions that lead to interpretations of international law that in turn become internalized in domestic law. Once internalized, such interpretations become difficult to change.

In a recent lecture at Washburn University School of Law, Harold used the lens of transnational legal process to examine “The Trump Administration and International Law.” His tour d’horizon is a tour de force, examining the entrenchment of international law with respect to immigration and refugees, human rights, climate change, Iran, North Korea, Russian hacking and cybersecurity, Ukraine, al Qaeda and IS, and Syria. As he writes, “no single player in the transnational legal process—not even the most powerful one—can easily discard the rules that we have been following for some time.”

Harold’s purpose is not simply descriptive. He also sets forth a “counter-strategy” to resist Trump’s assault on international law and international institutions. This strategy includes an “inside strategy” that government officials can use to engage other states, translate international law norms, and leverage those norms as smart power to advance U.S. interests. And it includes an “outside strategy” that non-governmental actors can use “to generate interactions that force interpretations that promote internationalizations of international norms even by resisting governments.”

I want to focus on the “outside strategy,” and particularly its reliance on litigation. “Lawsuits are the paradigmatic example” of the outside strategy, Harold explains. “[I]f a government policy moves in a legally noncompliant direction, an outside nongovernmental group can sue (generate an interaction) that yields a judicial ruling (an interpretation) that the government defendant must then obey as a matter of domestic law (norm internationalization).” There is no doubt that litigation is a critical tool to promote compliance with international law. But litigation can also serve as a catalyst for interpretations that constrain international law.

In an insightful article that should be required reading for any lawyer entering government service, Professor Rebecca Ingber has examined how different interpretation catalysts shape executive branch interpretations in the area of national security. She writes: “Once the government is implicated in a lawsuit, particularly over a matter of national security, nearly all forces align to push the executive to advocate an expansive view of its own authority, to defend past action, and to request a judgment in favor of the government on the broadest possible grounds so as to preserve executive flexibility to the greatest extend possible.” After the executive branch takes a position in the context of litigation, that interpretation can be quite difficult to change.

I witnessed this dynamic first hand when I served as Harold’s Counselor on International Law at the State Department and participated in the interagency process that produced the two amicus briefs for the United States in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum. With respect to the question of corporate liability for human rights violations, which posed no direct litigation risk to the United States or its officials and on which the United States had not previously taken a position, it was possible to reach consensus on a position that advanced international law (a position that became entrenched and that the Trump administration repeated in its amicus brief in Jesner v. Arab Bank). But with respect to questions of extraterritoriality, it proved difficult to move away from positions adopted by the Bush Administration in the shadow of the “War on Terror” and allegations of human rights violations by U.S. government actors.

In her article, Rebecca gives the example of the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror” policies. “The Bush years are often cast as a time of momentous Supreme Court pushback against administration policies in areas where presidents had previously been awarded great deference. That is one narrative, and there is truth in it.” But she explains that there is another narrative in which “repeated years of litigation . . . did not radically alter the legal architecture for the Bush Administration’s policies in its ‘War on Terror.’ Instead, this litigation entrenched it.” Despite the desire of the Obama Administration to move in a different direction, the existing executive interpretations made it “exceedingly difficult for the new Administration to change course and suddenly take new positions in litigation, above all those that might constrain government action or fail to defend past government policies.”

Litigation can be an important interaction in the transnational legal process framework. But it can produce narrow interpretations of international law by the executive, which are only sometimes overturned by broader interpretations in the courts. And narrow executive interpretations can become internalized, just as broader judicial interpretations can.

One may be more likely to get broader judicial interpretations when the courts do not trust a particular administration, at least not on a particular issue. That factor may have played some role in the Bush Administration’s losses at the Supreme Court in the “War on Terror” cases, and it could certainly be relevant in litigation challenging some of the Trump Administration’s policies. The probability of a good interpretation from the courts may offset the probability of a bad interpretation from the executive.

Whether litigation is the right counter-strategy also depends, of course, on the alternatives. As Rebecca rightly notes, “litigation may well be the only way to force the executive’s hand.” This may be particularly true for the Trump Administration, in which other potential catalysts (like reports to treaty bodies) are likely to have less impact and other potential interpreters of international law (like the State Department) have already been marginalized.

Finally, one must consider the impact of litigation not just on the executive branch and the courts but also on the broader public mind. A case in point is the litigation challenging the Trump Administration’s Travel Bans, in which the clinics at Yale Law School have played an important role. One by-product of the litigation was a devastating declaration of former national security officials, which later became an amicus brief, confirming that the Travel Ban would likely harm counterterrorism and law enforcement efforts. The litigation has also helped galvanize resistance from members of Congress and state and local governments. Even if this litigation generates narrow executive branch interpretations of international law, and even if courts uphold some of those interpretations, the political impacts of the litigation may yet prove worthwhile.

Transnational legal process provides an important framework for understanding why nations obey international law and how to frame strategies to ensure that the Trump Administration does as well. But it is wise to remember that executive branch interpretations tend to be most regressive when made in the context of defensive litigation, and that internalization can apply to bad interpretations as well as to good ones.